Has Bill James Jumped the Shark

I remember the first time I encountered Bill James’ work. I was 14 years old had bought a copy of the 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract at a bookstore thinking it was another baseball preview book of the type of which I used to read about five or ten every spring. I read the entire book in one sitting and never thought about baseball the same way again. I spent my high school years thinking about isolated power and secondary averages at a time when observing that players hit better at Fenway Park than at the Astrodome was still considered radical in most baseball conversations.

I read everything James wrote for years, all his annual books, both historical abstracts and other articles and books. I quickly grew to appreciate James not just for his extraordinary insight into baseball but for his general irreverence, his unwillingness to accept conventional wisdom at face value, great use of metaphors, incessant curiosity about all things baseball and passion for thinking about baseball, and seemingly everything else, in new ways. I also found him an excellent writer who could mix humor and quantitative analysis brilliantly.

I did not agree with everything James said. I remember strongly disagreeing with one line from one of his early books where he casually and without explanation asserted that the 1976-1978 Royals were better than the Yankees of those years, and felt his argument from around 2001 that Craig Biggio was the best player in baseball was an interesting methodological exercise, but not really serious. Nonetheless, I valued his approach and looked forward to his next book or article.

By the turn of the century, James no longer had the monopoly on serious quantitative research on baseball. Dozens of new writers were working in the field; and much of their work was available for free on the internet. James seemed less accessible during this period, particularly after he published his revised historical abstract. However, through interviews, occasional articles and the like he still retained a presence and continued to provide insightful and often irreverent thoughts on baseball.

The opportunity to join the Red Sox in 2003 was something which few people in James’ situation could have passed up. While he has been extremely successful there, for at least some longtime James fans, the transition was a tough one. James joined the Red Sox just as the righteousness of the Red Sox was at its height. The Red Sox Nation versus Evil Empire rhetoric is the kind of thing the old Bill James would have skewered, pointing out the similarities between the franchises. Similarly, the pass the Red Sox were given on the steroid scandal would not have escaped notice by the old Bill James.

Nonetheless, James has continued to produce some good insights and articles during his tenure with the Red Sox while contributing to two World Championships in Boston during the eight years he has been there. Continuing to be an important analyst while serving an executive for one team has proven a difficult role for James, as it would for anybody, but at times he has juggled these roles ably. Moreover, in 2003 if James had simply retired and decided to spend the rest of his life surfing or analyzing college basketball, his place in baseball history would have been secure; and he would have earned my nonexistent Hall of Fame vote.

One recent article and one recent interview by James, however, are troubling because they demonstrate that his lifelong urge to question conventional wisdom and a degree of intellectual laziness has crept into his work. In an interview with the Seattle TimesJames argued that Felix Hernandez, not Zack Greinke, deserved the AL Cy Young award last year. The position is not indefensible, but the basis for James’s argument was something that one of his poorer imitators might have thought up twenty years ago, that the Mariners had a better record in games that Hernandez started than the Royals did in games Greinke started. This is the kind of back of the envelope analysis against which James argued for most of his career, to see him employ this type of methodology was sad.

The second recent piece which suggested that James may be losing his touch was an article in the recent Bill James Goldmine on starting pitchers and the Hall of Fame. The article was interesting and fun to read, but the theory itself was nonsensical. James created a matrix for determining how good a pitcher was relative to his peers on measures such as wins, ERA and the like, awarded points accordingly and determined that those with over 40 career points should be in the Hall of Fame, while those with under this number should not. He also awarded extra points for truly extraordinary seasons like those of Ron Guidry in 1978 or Steve Carlton in 1972.

This methodology is reminiscent of the Black Ink test created by James in The Politics of Glory, the difference is that James uses the pitcher’s model not as a heuristic for evaluating players, but for determining who should or should not be in the Hall of Fame. The method itself is troubling because it relies so heavily on the exact conventional measures which Bill James himself found so problematic a quarter of a century ago. It also builds Hall of Fame arguments entirely around peak seasons, ignoring that a pitcher who has ten pretty good seasons buttressing five peak ones is a significantly stronger Hall of Fame candidate than a pitcher with a similar peak but only three pretty good seasons.
James’ most striking findings are that Ron Guidry, Dwight Gooden and several others who have not received much attention from voters, should be elected to the Hall of Fame. Given the consensus from sportswriters, sabrmetricians and ordinary fans that these two should not be in the Hall of Fame, James failure to either defend these assertions more vigorously and effectively, or to explore possible flaws in his argument, is striking.

James is, to some extent, a victim of his own success. He changed the way we write about and understand baseball which led to many imitators who have become competitors. Similarly, James was too smart and too influential to be overlooked by the generation of general managers who have been influence by him. In this respect, Theo Epstein deserves credit for acting more quickly than his competitors in securing James’ services. James’ journey from fringe figure to wise old man of the game has been impressive and rewarding for both him and his longtime fans. However, his recent writings have been a disappointment. It would be great to see James regain the edge he had a quarter century ago, but perhaps that is not a realistic expectation and we should just be grateful for the contributions he has made.